The Problem With The Construction Of Emotional Labor Is It’s Anti-labor
In the last few years, emotional labor has become a frequent topic of conversation, defining it among other kinds of labor that are unequally assigned, usually along gendered lines, with women taking on more of the work. While this discussion is undoubtedly crucial, the way emotional labor has been spoken about inadvertently mirrors unself-conscious, late capitalistic, less-is-best biases about labor. Namely, that it is a thing one should do as little as possible.
From my vantage point as a couples therapist, I’m concerned. I want my patients to engage in more emotional labor, not less. The question of equity is concerning, but we miss the mark if the solution is to hack the system and do as little as possible.
Emotional Labor Is How Relationships Are Built And Deepened
The term emotional labor is meant to include lots of things: being vulnerable, making decisions, being generous when things are hard, and making and maintaining relationships with people outside of the relationship. For couples, emotional labor is how relationships are built and deepened. It’s how couples get stronger for when stuff gets hard.
There are also no meaningful “labor-saving devices” when it comes to emotional labor in relationships. It’s not like the manner that washing machines and vacuum cleaners were labor-saving in the domain of domestic work.
Labor, Even Emotional Labor, Falling Along Traditional Gender Lines Isn’t Necessarily A Bad Thing (If Done Consciously)
In the discussion about equity in emotional labor, it’s important to say that, like domestic labor, just because things fall along traditional gender lines doesn’t make it bad. Plenty of straight relationships can thrive when the woman does the bulk of the childcare or cooking. This applies in instances of emotional labor as well.
The question here is not how the emotional labor is broken down among genders, but how these decisions are made. They should be made consciously and examined regularly, rather than related to as a default. Sometimes one or the other partner has more to give, more fluency in certain emotional experiences, and that’s okay. But, it is important to check in on that: Does the breakdown of labor feel good? Do both partners feel valued? Is there a real opportunity to look at a different way of organizing things?
Couples Should Create A Culture Where Emotional Labor Is Celebrated
The task for couples, rather than trying to do less emotional labor, is to create a culture where emotional labor is celebrated, where everyone contributes, and where there is a self-consciousness about equity. Similar to how a football team or a group at the office create their culture, couples can explicitly talk about what’s valued and then, celebrate and support these values around emotional labor. This could look like saying, “Honey, thanks for deciding where we went to dinner,” or “Hey, kiddos, Dad picked out dinner. Let’s not make him wait on this.” It could even look like simply saying, “Thanks for rallying the kids.”